Spring Lake farm growing and teaching others
Spence Farm in Spring Lake does more than just feed the physical needs of the community, it also nurtures the souls of those it interacts with.
Owners Ed and Sheila Spence operate the farm, run a roadside stand and sell at nearby markets each week. While that would seem to be enough to keep most people busy, the Spences also host workshops at the farm through N.C. A&T State University for people who think they may be interested in farming, such as veterans transitioning from the military into civilian life.
It is a path Ed Spence knows well. When he retired from the military, Spence returned to the familiar roots of the farm.
He said hosting veterans at the farm and having them volunteer gives them a more realistic understanding of the work it takes to run a small farm.
“When a vet comes here, we ask, ‘What have you done and how do you know this is what you want to do.?’ This gives them a chance to see if they really want to do this,” Ed Spence said. “It’s a lot of work. Anything you do is a lot of work, but what you put in, you get out, too.”
For some volunteer veterans, just the experience of working the land and being outside is enough reward, providing a quiet space for reflection, recovery and reconnection. For others, the experience helps them figure out farming is not for them, something Ed Spence also sees as a valuable lesson.
“By the time a beginning farmer gets going, he’s spent $100,000, and maybe $200,000 by the third or the fourth year,” he said.
The Spences started their farm from ground zero with a microloan to veterans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for small and niche farms. Now five years into it, their operation is over three acres, including a couple of greenhouses to extend the growing season through the winter.
Along the way, they have slowly added to their farm offerings, listening to the requests of their customers, watching food trends, trying new things, investing back into their operation and learning along the way. Ed Spence recognizes the advantages he has as a military retiree with an income to rely on as he grows his business.
During a recent visit, it was clear Spence had made his peace with the chores and challenges of farming. With a long to-do list in his head, Spence and his granddaughter, were busy feeding and watering chickens in the backyard.
Freshly dug trenches were awaiting one of the newest additions to the farm – an automated irrigation system. The Spences were able to secure a Natural Resources Conservation Service cost-share grant for small farmers with the help of Jacob Crandall, an agricultural program specialist with the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Small Farms Program.
This system will help Spence more efficiently manage the water and nutrient needs of his plants.
Understanding what programs are available for small farms and then navigating the paperwork involved in applying for loans and grants can be daunting for farmers who have a lot on their plates already, Crandall said. “That’s one of the things I do, is to help show them what is available out there and figure out what they need to do to apply,” he said. “I work with them and guide them through the process.”
NCDA&CS received a grant from NRCS that covers Crandall’s work. As a retired USDA employee who has knowledge of many of the agency’s programs and opportunities, Crandall’s experience is invaluable to small farmers such as Spence.
“Jacob has been a big push in us getting this grant, and his help has made things easier. The first couple of years I was green, and didn’t know the right questions to ask,” Ed Spence said. “I don’t want this to just be a hobby. I want to be a sustainable farming business. I am trying to work smarter, not harder.”
In the mix of the family’s operation are several small-plot-intensive beds where they grow a variety of vegetables in close proximity, including carrots, kale, garlic, Swiss chard, leaf lettuce and beets. The beds feature short, closely spaced rows that Sheila Spence enjoys working in.
The spacing allows Sheila Spence to harvest three rows at a time, which seems more manageable than staring down the more traditional long rows that they also grow using plasticulture.
The plantings in the intensive beds vary depending on the time of the year, with winter vegetables rotating in once the summer plants are finished. Sheila Spence explained that she tends to leave weeds between the rows to help control pests. “The bugs are eating the weeds, and as long as they are eating the weeds and not the kale then I am good,” she said.
The Spences sell their harvest on Tuesdays and Thursdays at their roadside stand, and also travel weekly to a gated community market, Fayetteville City Market and a farmers market at Fayetteville State University that was started to serve a neighboring area identified as a food desert.
Marketing remains essential to growing their customer base. Although the farm is not certified organic, the Spences produce crops without the use of pesticides and commercial fertilizers, something their customers appreciate, Sheila Spence said.
Agritourism visits from area schools have also been a more recent addition, and the Spences enjoy showing kids where their food comes from, even giving them a chance to pick strawberries and blueberries.
Ed Spence said he loves teaching children about growing fruits and vegetables so they have an awareness of the role farmers play in producing the foods found in grocery stores.